Clear dome maintains humidity in the propagator



Totipotent Cells

Take a look at new shoots growing on a favorite shrub or vine and you’ll see that the bases of these shoots may be beginning to toughen up, becoming woody. Such shoots, snipped from the mother plant as so-called half-woody cuttings, can be rooted to make new plants. Two other types of stem cuttings are softwood cuttings, taken while shoots are still green and succulent, and hardwood cuttings, taken from thoroughly woody, often leafless, shoots.

You can make whole, new plants from any of these cuttings; I’ve done it for years. But be careful because rooting cuttings to make new plants can become addictive. And then you have to figure out what to do with all your new plants. (Hence, my annual plant sales.)Propagator for softwood cuttings

Cuttings are one of many ways to clone plants, that is, produce new plants that are genetically identical to the mother plant from which the stems were taken. Read more

Mexican "truffles"


Genetics: Up, Up, Up with the Sugar

I plan on eating sweet corn almost daily from about the middle of July until early autumn. I know the arguments against growing sweet corn in a backyard garden: It’s cheap at the farmstand and space-hungry in the garden. What’s more, the most modern, “supersweet” varieties hold their sweetness for days.

The supersweet varieties are truly supersweet. But “supersweet” is too much of a catchall term. Old-fashioned corn, the Papoon corn developed around 1750 by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and still available today, is noted for its creamy texture and 9 percent sugar due to its SU gene. Unfortunately, those sugars start changing into starch as soon as an ear is harvested.

Golden Bantam sweet corn

Golden Bantam sweet corn

In the latter half of the 20th century, “Sugary enhanced” sweet corn came on the scene. The SE gene incorporated into sweet corn varieties jacked sugar levels up to 17 percent. More Sugar meant more time for sweetness to hold following harvest. SE kernels are very tender.

Soon after, another gene, SH2 or “shrunken-2,” was found, which pushed that sweetness even higher, up to 35 percent! Read more

asparagus seedlings


The Evidence

I’d like to make a case for growing asparagus, even if you’re not a vegetable gardener. In fact, vegetable gardeners need not relegate asparagus to the vegetable patch. The plants hold little interest to deer, rabbits and other furry invaders that must be fenced out of vegetable gardens.

The ferny stems can provide a wispy lime-green backdrop to mounded flowers like lavatera and gaillardia, or an airy foreground to the broad, glossy leaves of holly bushes. My present asparagus provides a backdrop for three clematis plants trained skyward on wire trellises.Asparagus and clematis

Asparagus is especially easy to grow, in part because it is a perennial. My patch is about 25 years old. Read more

Slitting bark of rootstock


How to “Make” a New Tree

Visitors to my garden this time of year are often astonished to see me lopping the tops off some of my trees. No, I’m not the Henry the Eighth of horticulture, chopping the head off any tree that no longer meets my fancy. Okay, I AM actually lopping the head off any tree that doesn’t meet my fancy.

I part ways with Ol’ Henry, though, because, first, lopping the head off a tree doesn’t kill it and, second, I graft on a new head. (Something Henry could not do.) A few years after this seemingly brutal operation, the tree looks as chipper as ever. And it has a head that I like better — or else off it comes again.Inserting scions for bark graft

I do this type of grafting, called topworking, mostly on my pear trees, but it could equally be applied to many other kinds of fruit or ornamental trees. Read more

Cats with potted begonias


What’s in Your Mix?

That potting soil that you’ve bought for your seedlings and houseplants? It probably has no REAL soil at all in it. Real soil is just too hard to obtain in reliable and uniform quantities for commercial packaging. Soilless mixes, as commercial potting soils are (or should be) called, are a mix of some kind(s) of organic materials along with some aggregate, with possible additions of fertilizer, ground limestone, and a wetting agent.Cats with potted begonias

Organic materials in these mixes help sponge up water and cling to nutrients that might otherwise wash down and out of the pot. Peat moss is the organic material traditionally used in soilless mixes. Although it holds water well, it’s initially hard to wet, which is why wetting agents are sometimes added to soilless mixes. Read more

Raised beds


Universal Plant Needs

Although garden plants hail from all corners of the world, they have surprisingly similar soil requirements — best attended to before planting. Simply put, most garden plants need soils that are well-supplied with air (yes, roots must breathe!), water, and nutrients. And one other important ingredient, organic matter (sometimes called humus), that witch’s brew of living and once-living organic materials in various states of decomposition that, in addition to contributing to the just-mentioned needs, also includes a friendly microbial community for optimum plant health.

Aeration must be the first consideration, since plants are unable to utilize nutrients, even in fertile soils, if roots lack access to air. There are two causes for waterlogged soils: either the water table is too high, bringing water up from below; or the soil has pores so small that they cling by capillary action to too much water that falls from above.

Deal with a high water table by either choosing another site for planting, by raising roots above the water table, or by lowering the water table. Growing plants in raised beds is the way to bring roots above a water table. Raised bedsBuild beds high enough to take the roots up out of the water, and wide enough so they don’t dry out too quickly. Read more

Dwarf Liberty apple tree & Sammy


Popular Though They May Be . . .

Apples may be a common fruit, second worldwide and in the U.S., bested only by bananas, but they surely are not the easiest ones to grow. At least not over much of this country east of the Rocky Mountains, and here on my farmden. Throughout this area, insects and diseases are ready to pounce on virtually every unsuspecting apple tree.

Pesticides will control these pests but, if needed, are effective only if used rigorously: trees must be regularly and thoroughly doused with the correct material, used at the correct concentration, and applied at the correct times. No wonder the average gardener is daunted at the thought of growing apples!

Dwarf Liberty apple tree & Sammy

Dwarf Liberty apple tree & Sammy

The prospects for backyard apples, organic apples, even in pest-prone regions brightened a few decades ago. Not all apple varieties are equally susceptible to diseases, and apple breeders went to work. Read more

Standard bay, rosemary, kumquat


Lack of Water Could Be the Cause

Looks like I’ve done it again. Killed rosemary, the plant. Worse than that, I’ve killed two rosemary plants. And even worse still, drawing on my experiences killing numerous rosemary plants — perhaps you also have killed one or more — I’ve been dispensing my “expertise” on how not to kill rosemary.Rosemary with winter background

My reasoning went like this: Although native to the generally dry climate of the Mediterranean region, roots of rosemary plants in the ground there can reach far and wide in their explorations for water. Not so for rosemary plants that need to live in pots here, where winters are too cold for them outdoors.

To make matters worse, rosemary’s stiff, needle-like leaves don’t signal that the plant is crying out from thirst by wilting. Read more


Possible Sources of Anxiety

Especially in years past, I would get a little tense this time of year, because sometime soon I would have to sit down and map out the year’s vegetable garden. As usual, ideas have been bouncing around inside my head for the past few weeks, but the day must come — before April 1st, my date for planting peas — when procrastination must bow to action.Vegetable garden with trellis

When that time comes, I gather together on the kitchen table printouts of the empty beds in my two vegetable gardens, a sharpened pencil, and notes and plans of gardens past. After taking a deep breath, my first order of business, planning for crop rotation, begins. The theory: Plant no vegetable in the same spot sooner than every third year. The rationale: A garden pest might survive the winter to bother the same plant the following year . . . unless the plant happens to be growing elsewhere, in which case the pest starves and dies.

Pests usually are equally fond of all plants in a plant family, so I won’t grow tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, or potatoes (nightshade family) at the same location without waiting three years. Read more

Winter view from indoors


Forming Relationships

This may sound crazy but even this far north, winter isn’t a bad time to admire the garden. With leaves and flowers a memory of the past season and a hope for the coming season, the garden is reduced to its bare bones. Not that the wintry scene need be dull or bleak. Good bones give structure to the landscape, knitting it together in some places, dividing it up in others, framing vistas, and providing firm footing for the eyes (figuratively) and feet (literally). Even now.

Three-dimensional forms are what give structure to a landscape. A house usually is the most obvious mass jutting up into space on a property. Too often it’s the only structural element, feebly tied to the landscape with some gumdrop-shaped junipers or yews standing, as if guarding, the foundation.

Winter view from indoorsI have effected a relationship between my yard and my house by building a grape arbor out from the rear wall, then enclosing the ground beneath this arbor with a brick terrace (my house is also brick) edged with a low hedge of potentilla. Similarly, the stone wall supporting what previous were slopes at the front and side of my house flow into the landscape with a contiguous stone wall sweeping out across the yard. Read more